When the Blackhawks sent Nick Schmaltz down to the American Hockey League on Dec. 4, the goal was to get him acclimated to playing more of the two-way style of hockey Joel Quenneville preaches, and to balance his passing instincts with his shooting ability.
He was there for a little over a month, and just that brief stint has reaped benefits for the Blackhawks' first-round pick in 2014.
After scoring only one goal and three assists in his first 26 games, Schmaltz has five goals and eight assists in the 18 games since he returned to the NHL on Jan. 14, and is a large reason why the Blackhawks' four-line rotation has been clicking over the past month.
"Whatever he did when he went down to Rockford is incredible," said Scott Darling, who stopped 36 of 37 shots in a 4-1 win over the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at the United Center on Wednesday night. "Came back with a whole new edge and a whole new intensity, and now you’re seeing the results. He’s playing to the full capability."
Schmaltz added a few more plays to his highlight reel on Wednesday, but he more-so earned brownie points and the trust of his head coach.
After Artem Anisimov went down with a lower-body injury early in the second period, Quenneville was forced to separate the top line that's been on fire, and moved Schmaltz to center on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane.
It was a smooth transition despite not having played there in a while, and it showed quickly.
The 21-year-old rookie hustled back in the neutral zone and stripped the puck away from Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, then fed Kane a quick pass who slipped one past Marc-Andre Fleury for the game's first goal.
"I thought I had a chance at catching him, I just wanted to put pressure on him," Schmaltz said. "I try to do that a lot where I just lift the stick, pull it back, then I saw Kaner there and he made a great shot five-hole."
The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but the dagger came with just under four minutes to play when Schmaltz made a nifty little move before delivering a perfect backhand pass to Kane, who buried his second of three on the night.
"You don't want to break up that top line when they're playing so well, but wow, what a couple great plays Schmaltzy made on my first two goals," Kane said.
The win gave the Blackhawks their 10th in the last 11 games, and they've scored at least four goals in each of those victories. Schmaltz has played a big hand in that, on both ends of the ice.
"I thought he had a great game, moving back to center, something he hasn't done for us in a while," Quenneville said. "He fit in perfectly with those two guys. He really took advantage of the situation, and really helped our team and our team game with his play. I think the last four games he's really elevated his game to a different level. Big factor again tonight. Great to see. I like that."
The praise didn't stop there.
"I think that's the thing that you notice in his game," Quenneville continued, when asked about Schmaltz's improvements from earlier in the year. "Whether it's his defensive responsibility, backside pressure, stronger on the puck area, more pace to his game. His confidence with the puck and his playmaking ability is his strength. I saw a couple nice plays by him tonight, and it really gives us some options. Him fitting in that hole where (Anisimov) was, we didn't know it was going to be like that. But I liked how he took advantage of it."
With two more assists, Schmaltz extended his point streak to a season-high five games, where he's potted two goals and seven assists total. He's also registered at least a point in eight of his last nine games, and has 12 points during that span.
Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said recently that Schmaltz's confidence has grown immensely, and that can be attributed to his stint in Rockford. That's all the time he needed.
"He knows he can play now at this level," Bowman said. "I don't think there's any question. He's not just trying to get by, he's trying to make a difference now."
He did again on Wednesday, and without him, the Blackhawks wouldn't be on this hot stretch.
"We’ve got everyone going right now," Schmaltz said. "Hopefully we can keep this rolling."